62 pages 2 hours read

David Baldacci

Zero Day

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2011

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Summary and Study Guide


David Baldacci’s Zero Day (2011, Grand Central Publishing) is the 23rd of Balducci’s 44 adult novels and the first of three in his John Puller series. Most of Baldacci’s adult novels are in the suspense and legal thriller genres. Baldacci studied law and worked as an attorney for seven years before publication of his first novel, Absolute Power (1996), which was made into a 1997 film directed by Clint Eastwood. His research for Zero Day included undergoing training at Fort Benning and interviewing military personnel to understand their experience, their philosophy, and their motivations. He also has written four young adult fantasy novels written under the name Janus Pope and two juvenile novels. His stories have been adapted into three films and one television series.

The page numbers in this guide are from the Kindle edition.

Plot Summary

Colonel Matthew Reynolds and his family have been murdered in Drake, West Virginia. Warrant officer John Puller of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division is assigned to investigate the deaths. Before leaving for West Virginia, Puller visits his brother Robert, who is serving a life sentence at the United States Disciplinary Barracks for treason. Robert is a brilliant nuclear scientist, and Puller has never fully believed his brother’s guilt.

Approaching the town of Drake, Puller passes an enormous concrete dome and an abandoned housing complex. Finding his hotel in the town proper at three o’clock in the morning, he telephones the local officer in charge, Sergeant Samantha Cole. Cole agrees to meet him in the morning, and Puller goes to the crime scene on his own. There, he finds that the scene has been left unguarded. He telephones Cole again and goes in to secure the scene. He finds the bodies of the Reynolds family and the body of the murdered officer who was supposed to be on duty. Plainly, the killers came back to the scene for some reason. Puller hears Cole’s car approaching. Passing a window, he sees someone fleeing into the woods.

Puller and Cole re-secure the scene, and Puller finds the marks of a camera tripod in front of the sofa where the Reynolds family has been posed. He concludes that the family was interrogated before being killed. The parents were killed with a shotgun. Cole suggests that the reason the neighbors did not notice the shots is that the nearby mine was blasting that night and the killers somehow knew exactly when the blasts would happen. Surveying the neighborhood, Puller and Cole find the occupants of the house across the street, Molly Bitner and Eric Treadwell, dead and posed like the Reynoldses. They were killed using a method common in the Army Special Forces.

Later that day, Puller and Cole are approached by Bill Strauss, the chief operating officer of Trent Exploration, the mine that did the blasting. Strauss tells them that Molly Bitner worked at his office. Cole and Puller also visit Roger Trent, the owner of Trent Exploration, who appears to know nothing about the murders. It turns out that Trent’s wife, Jean, is Sergeant Cole’s older sister. Puller returns to his motel and finds a note under his door telling him to meet the sender at a house outside of town. There, he and Cole find two traps that would have killed them if Puller hadn’t had so much experience with improvised explosive devices in the Middle East. The next day, Puller and Cole go to Strauss’s office, where they learn that Molly Bitner recently gave her housemate Eric Treadwell access to Strauss’s inner office and the safe where he keeps sensitive documents.

Puller returns to Washington DC to interview Reynolds’s superior officer, General Julie Carson. According to her, Reynolds told her he was investigating “something big” in Drake that was going to happen very soon and had national security implications. After speaking to Carson, Puller is intercepted by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents and taken to meet DHS agent Joe Mason. Mason tells him there are terrorists in Drake plotting something devastating. Colonel Reynolds must have found out something about it.

Despite what Mason has told Puller, all clues still point to Trent Exploration. Returning to Drake, Puller learns that the blasting schedule for the night of the murder wasn’t posted in the newspapers. The only way for the killers to know when the blast would occur is if they had inside information, and Strauss is in charge of arranging for blasting permits. Puller learns from Jean Trent that there have been financial irregularities at the company, which would give Trent a motive for conspiring with terrorists if they paid him off.

Remembering that Eric Treadwell had access to Strauss’s safe, Puller breaks into Strauss’s office at night and finds a set of blueprints for the concrete dome outside of town. Cole tells him the dome is called the Bunker and covers what used to be an army research facility. Contacting one of the scientists who worked there, Puller learns that there might be nuclear materials on the site. The scientist also tells Puller how to get in through a ventilation shaft.

Puller phones his brother at the prison, and Robert confirms that it is possible someone has built a nuclear weapon at the Bunker. Puller realizes if he is going to have to disarm a nuclear weapon, he will need his brother’s help. Puller and Cole enter the dome, laying out a reel of phone cable as they go. Inside, they find Roger Trent trussed and unconscious, surrounded by evidence of all the financial irregularities at Trent Exploration. They also find the bomb. Using the cable they have laid, Puller phones his brother at the prison, and Robert talks him through disarming the bomb. He warns Puller that there will still be an explosion that will probably destroy the dome. Following Robert’s instructions, Puller sets a stick of dynamite to disrupt the timing of the detonation. His interference triggers the bomb’s timer to jump forward, leaving them only five minutes to escape. Puller sets his own timer for four minutes, then he and Cole grab Roger Trent and run. They escape the dome with a minute to spare and survive the initial detonation, but Trent is thrown headfirst against a tree and killed, and then a falling block of concrete strikes Cole and kills her.

Puller tracks down Strauss in South America. Strauss, not Trent, was the one embezzling from the company. Strauss learned about the nuclear fuel stored at the dome and contacted Mason, whom he knew from their service in the Marines. Mason arranged the sale of the nuclear fuel and set up the bomb to hide the theft, unconcerned that it would kill thousands of people. Strauss dumped Trent next to the bomb so that it would appear that Trent was the embezzler and that he had absconded with the money before the bomb went off. Puller gives Strauss the choice of execution for treason or life in prison in exchange for testifying against Joe Mason.

Puller confronts Mason and gets him to confess that he and Strauss conspired to steal the nuclear materials in the dome. Strauss had foolishly hired Eric Treadwell to manufacture components for the bomb without telling him what they were. Treadwell and Bitner became suspicious and went looking for evidence of what Strauss was doing. They shared the evidence with their neighbor, Colonel Reynolds, and Mason had all of them killed. He used the story about the terrorists to try to distract Puller from the real conspiracy. Mason is about to have Puller killed by his henchmen, but General Carson arrives with a squad of Army Rangers to arrest Mason and his people. The whole exchange has been recorded, and Mason will probably be executed for treason. Grieving Cole’s death, Puller takes leave from the Army, but he knows he will come back stronger for having known her.

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